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Baker's Ribs

An Art, Not a Science

Pick a soda from the bathtub, line up at the counter, and decide what you’re going to eat.

You’re at Baker’s Ribs, where that ice-filled tub of soft drinks is the offbeat introduction to a place filled with pig memorabilia of every two- and three- dimensional description, a shrine to swine. The porkers ornament rooms festooned with signs advertising long-gone products, an American Pickers realm where time seems to have stood still.

And time – measured here in long, slow hours – is the menu’s hidden ingredient.

Baker’s Ribs, Eden Prairie’s outpost of a Texas temple of barbecue, built its reputation on top-quality St. Louis-style pork ribs, beef brisket, pork butt, chicken and turkey. But matching meat with the flavor of smoke is all a matter of time.

“We put our brisket and pork butt in the pit between four and six in the afternoon,” says Al Killion, pitmaster and Eden Prairie franchisee of Dallas-based Baker’s, “and they won’t be ready to serve until mid-morning the next day.”

Time, and the experience that comes with it, have been key to Al’s career. He’s been in the barbecue business since he started working at the original Dallas location in 1991, two years before launching the Eden Prairie restaurant (and about as long as he’s been collecting all things pig). What he doesn’t know about Texas barbecue just might not matter. 

What sets Texas barbecue apart from other regional traditions? “Texas style means all the cooking is done over smoke,” says Al, “and the sauce is tomato-based. In the Carolinas, they use mustard and vinegar in their sauce. And Kansas City barbecue is finished on the grill after smoking.”

That all-important smoke comes from oak logs, slowly smoldering below the shelves holding the meat in a big temperature-controlled smoker called a “pit,” in a nod to barbecue’s earthy origins. “Overnight, we keep the temperature down to 250 or 275 degrees,” Al explains. “Then to finish smoking in the morning, we put it back up to 325.” Daytime is when Baker’s St. Louis-style ribs smoke. They don’t need as much time in the pit – four hours or so will do.

How to regulate such a seemingly primitive process? It starts with “green” wood, whole and split logs that haven’t lost their inner moisture. “When we leave at night, we put a few pieces of green split oak over the coals remaining from the day before. Then we put a round log on top. The coals help heat up the log and get it smoking. Because of the green log, it’s a controlled burn that produces smoke.” During the day, if a hotter fire is needed, Al and his assistants will toss in a few pieces of dry split wood. Bringing the pit temperature up and down is made possible by dampers activated by an electric thermostat – the more air let in, the hotter the smoldering fire. Thermostats and dampers aside, though, good barbecue takes a watchful eye. “It’s an art, not a science,” Al maintains. 

The wood Al uses is oak. “If we were further south, we’d use hickory, but hickory doesn’t grow up here,” Al points out. “You use what you have. And oak gives the meat a good taste.” All that oak is stored right on the premises, where just about everything in the Baker’s operation takes place. “The only thing we don’t do here is cut up the cabbage for the coleslaw – all the prep work for our sides is done in house.” Along with slaw, those sides include smoky baked beans, rotini pasta salad, baked potatoes, dilled potato salad, dirty rice, and garden, Caesar and tomato basil salads. And since this is Texas barbecue, there’s always Texas toast.

With the holidays approaching, Al and his crew will be smoking plenty of turkeys and hams to fill special orders for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “For a 12- to 14-pound turkey, we smoke at least four hours, maybe five or five-and-a-half,” says Al. “The skin gets a nice mahogany color – like a lacquered mahogany finish on furniture.” Hams get a longer stay in the pit. “A whole ham smokes all night, at least nine hours, on the upper shelf where the temperature is lower. We put half hams on the higher shelf, for a shorter time. Either way, the taste is wonderful. Sometimes, your tongue will tingle from the smoke. It’s hard to describe.”

Baker’s Ribs is open for dining in and takeout 11am to 8pm Tuesday through Saturday. Baker’s accepts catering orders, along with advance orders for holiday turkeys and hams. “Ideally, orders for Thanksgiving turkeys should be placed during the first couple of weeks in November,” Al advises. “That’s the best way to get one of the local organic turkeys we like to use.”

8019 Glen Lane, Eden Prairie • (952) 942-5822 • bakersribsmn.com

What Al doesn’t know about Texas barbecue just might not matter.

  • Al Killion